We the People, or…?



For much of the last two months, we have been analyzing why the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they and the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them are chronically misused and confused.

In this final installment, we’ll deal with flawed sentences like Politicians should respect we the people and It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last.

Formal writing requires “us the people” (object of respect) and “him who laughs last” (object of for), even though we instinctively resist tampering with venerable expressions like we the people and he who laughs last.

If being correct would ruin the mood, there may be creative ways around the grammatical buzzkill. In the first case, we could probably avoid censure by using capitals: Politicians should respect We the People. This signals the reader that the well-known phrase is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In the second example, we could write: a happy outcome for “he who laughs last.”  The quotation marks grant the words special dispensation, like the title of a book or movie.

So now, here is a summary of the chief causes of pronoun confusion.

  • All forms of the verb to be. Informal sentences (It was me, It must have been them, It seems to be her) wrongly use object pronouns instead of what are called subject complements. (The correct pronouns respectively would be I, they, and she.)
  • Compound subjects and compound objects. In everyday speech, when and or or links a pronoun with other nouns or pronouns, the results are often ungrammatical: Joe and him went fishing, Sue invited my friend and I for dinner, Her or I will meet you there. (The correct pronouns respectively would be he, me, and she.)
  • Comparative sentences using as or than. Sentences like You’re as smart as her and Eddie ran faster than them sound fine but are technically flawed. (The correct pronouns respectively would be she and they.)
  • Infinitives and verbs ending in –ing. They change subjects to objects. An infinitive such as to be turns I believe he is honest into I believe him to be honest. A verb ending in –ing, such as going, gives us the option of saying either I saw he was going home or I saw him going home. This can be especially confusing with compound subjects and objects, or when who-whom is involved.
  • Idiomatic phrases containing subject pronouns (we the people, he who laughs last).

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that are formally ungrammatical.

1. LaTroy knew it was him who everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we.

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and I.

4. May him and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as me.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he.

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something?

8. Who do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a hard week for we residents of California.

10. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. LaTroy knew it was he whom everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and me.

4. May he and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as I.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he. CORRECT

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something? CORRECT

8. Whom do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a hard week for us residents of California.

10. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

 

Posted on Tuesday, October 20, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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8 Comments on We the People, or…?

8 responses to “We the People, or…?”

  1. Chuck Radda says:

    2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

    I disagree. I was taught long ago (and later taught my students) that the subject and object of any verbal—even the verb “to be”—is in the objective case. Constructions like “I wanted her to be him” are thus preferable to the more grating “I wanted she to be he.” (In the first “her” is the subject of the infinitive; him is the object.) In addition, “He found me cooking” is correct even though “me” is the subject of the gerund.” (If the old song “It Had to Be You” were transmogrified into a first person lament, “It Had to Be Me” would be my choice.)

    • You may wish to review the principles we’ve presented in the five subject and object pronoun posts we’ve provided every other week recently. If you go back to I Subject Your Honor of August 26, 2020, you’ll see that “…it had to have been we” is formally correct, not “… it had to have been us” because we wouldn’t say “us had to have been it.”

      Further, likening “it had to have been we” to “I wanted she to be he” is a false comparison. “I wanted she to be he” is not only grating, it’s incorrect. In the sentence “I wanted her to be him,” her is in the object case because it’s the object of the verb wanted. And thus him must be in the object case to agree with the objective her.

  2. Linda Bigwood says:

    I am sorry if I’m posting in the wrong place, but I could not find another appropriate site.
    Q: I’ve noticed this year in many newspaper reports, the word “black,” when describing a person is capitalized. Then I noticed that “white” person is also being capitalized. Is it correct to capitalize the adjectives “black” or “white” when referring to people?

    • We have written many posts dealing with capitalization, but none that deal directly with your question, so we’ll respond here.

      The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 8.38 says, “Black is increasingly capitalized when referring to racial or ethnic identity. As a matter of editorial consistency, similar terms such as White may also be capitalized when used in this sense. Usage varies according to context, however, and individual preferences should be respected.”

      AP Stylebook says, “Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.” AP Stylebook does not currently capitalize the word white as an adjective describing a person.

  3. Brenda R says:

    For clarity, I would rewrite your example sentence “I saw him going home” to specify who was going home: the speaker, or the person seen by the speaker.

  4. Tom Woods says:

    I read in the main article on subject-verb agreement that, “Rule 1. A subject will come before a phrase beginning with ‘of’.”

    However, in this example I believe the verb applies to the phrase that comes after the phrase beginning with “of”: “The list of arbitrary restrictions goes on, and anyone who violates it risks fines or jail time.”

    I believe that it is the “arbitrary restrictions” that are being violated, not the “list,” and that it should read “The list of arbitrary restrictions goes on, and anyone who violates them risks fines or jail time.”

    I appreciate your assistance very much!

    • You seem to be in agreement with our Rule 1 in that the verb goes is the correct choice in combination with the singular subject list. What it appears you are questioning is noun-pronoun agreement between either listit or restrictionsthem. One thing this indicates is that the meaning of the sentence is unclear. What is it that one must violate in order to risk fines or jail: the entire list, one of its arbitrary restrictions, a combination of arbitrary restrictions, all of the arbitrary restrictions? Guessing at what may have been intended, a possible solution could be to replace the general pronoun with specific wording:
      The list of arbitrary restrictions goes on, and anyone who violates any of the restrictions risks fines or jail time.

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